For the entirety of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has been sitting back and watching intently, analyzing the every move of every player. His takes have been featured on TrueHoop and the NBA Today podcast at ESPN.com. Now as the posteason enters its penultimate stage, Luc believes he has a firm grasp of what’s coming next. He breaks down both series and selects a winner from each, forecasting who will meet in the 2012 NBA Finals next month.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
I like the matchups for Oklahoma City, especially Westbrook against Parker (Getty Images).
Individually the Thunder measure up with the Spurs great across the board.
At the point I like Russell Westbrook as both an offensive player and a defender on Tony Parker. Russell has always been a good defender ever since we were in college together. On the wings, with Kevin Durant’s length and Thabo Sefolosha’s ability as a defender, they matchup well with the San Antonio wings. Inside you’ve got Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, two guys who will make it difficult on anyone to score in deep.
I think they’ll have Perkins on Tim Duncan, to start the game at least, because Boris Diaw is a little more mobile so Serge will be able to stay with him better than Perkins. But I’m sure Ibaka will spend some time on Duncan as well and that will be a great matchup. Even if the Spurs go small, the Thunder can do the same and still match up really well with Durant at the 4 and Serge at the 5.
- Who must the Thunder stop to beat the Spurs?
I think it’s Duncan. He’s still a great player, a Hall of Famer, and if he’s not able to be as good as he has been in the first two series, the Spurs will be in trouble. He has to play at that level and carry a strong percentage of the scoring load for them to win this series.
It’s tough to stop a Hall-of-Fame player like him, but you can try to contain him and get him off of his spots. He likes that 15-foot bank shot and he likes the pick and pop. There are a couple of ways to defend him, but you go in knowing that he’s going to find a way to score some points.
You can start by bodying him up and trying to stop him from getting the ball deep. If he does get it in there, you can send a guard to try and get the ball out of his hands. But he also has that face-up game, where he can shoot or drive. If he does try to drive off that, you can have someone come and help. I wouldn’t front him in the post because you have all those guys on the perimeter. If you front Tim, there’s nobody in the back. I’d start by pushing him off the post, playing behind him and going from there.
KD is going to get his, it’s what the Spurs do against the others that will determine the outcome (Getty Images).
- Who must the Spurs stop to beat the Thunder?
I think at this point, you know what Durant is going to do. He’ll find his ways to score. But the key factor is Westbrook, because of his energy and his athleticism at that point guard position. When he brings it, he’s tough for any guard to hang with. He makes the Thunder so much better when he’s attacking and having great games.
I would put James Harden right up there, but I feel like sometimes even when Harden is not doing as well, if Russell is playing at a high level, OKC is really tough to beat. To slow him down, the Spurs have to force him into contested jump shots. He’s gotten better at making shots this year, but I still feel like his go-to is to get out and run, get into the key and create problems for teams. If you make him take more of those contested jumpers and play along the perimeter, you have a chance to win the game.
- Who is the defensive player on the Thunder who’s been most instrumental in that team’s victories?
Undoubtedly, the biggest player for Oklahoma City on defense is Ibaka. Serge’s one-on-one defense and his shot-blocking ability on the weak side have made a big difference. He’s been able to handle any forward he’s guarded. I thought he did a good job on Dirk Nowitzki and even better on Pau Gasol. He really didn’t let Gasol get off, and a lot of the scores Pau got in that series were off dropoffs and offensive rebounds.
We’ve all been there. Serge is the best shot blocker in the game because of great anticipation (Getty Images).
Serge is a very smart defender and he’s pretty much got timing down. He knows when to stay on a guy and when to jump to block the shot. He’s also quick enough to stay in front of some guys and strong enough to body them up. It’s been interesting to watch and see how he’s progressed as a defender.
- Who is the defensive player on the Spurs who’s been most instrumental in that team’s victories?
The Spurs play the most team-oriented defense of any team left. There isn’t one guy that’s responsible for too much. They all have things they do well and Gregg Popovich is great at maximizing each player’s ability. The concept and the scheme of Popovich’s defense is outstanding. You saw it against the Clippers. They took away the pick-and-roll and there was no way for Chris Paul to make plays, throw lobs or come off and shoot. They did a really good job of slowing Chris down and taking away his best options. Their scheme itself is the best defensive player they have.
- Who wins and why?
Oklahoma City in 7. I think OKC’s athleticism and firepower will be too much. They have more firepower than San Antonio and by that I mean their individual players. I believe that’s what will decide this series. Both teams do a good job defensively so it’s going to come down to individual matchups.
I don’t think San Antonio has been tested so far in terms of guarding really good scorers. The main scorers they’ve faced have been interior players. They haven’t seen the likes of Durant, Westbrook and Harden, guys who can put up 30 every night. To have three guys like that on one team is going to be hard for the Spurs to handle. It’s the ultimate test for Popovich’s scheme.
In the previous two rounds, San Antonio played teams with only one playmaker and by taking that guy away they dominated the series. With OKC they have three playmakers and I personally don’t think the Spurs will be able to handle the Thunder in a seven-game series.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: Miami Heat vs Boston Celtics
The Celtics must try to slow LeBron, but he’ll be a factor on both ends of the court (Getty Images).
There is a lot of history now between these two teams, but I think it comes down to knowing what’s at stake: They’re playing to go to the NBA championship series. That will make for a great series with a lot of intensity. It’s going to be fun to watch.
Not having Chris Bosh is definitely going to hurt Miami. They don’t lose much on the defensive end, but what they lose is his pressure on offense. He puts other defenders, good offensive players, in foul trouble. And he makes them guard. That takes a toll on you when you have to guard a guy like Bosh on defense and still go down to the offensive end and produce.
Udonis Haslem will have to step up again for them to have a chance. Against the Pacers he really did what needed to be done. They needed somebody else to make open shots, and he was able to be that guy. They’ll need him to keep that up until Bosh gets back.
- Who must the Celtics stop to beat the Heat?
You have to stop LeBron James to win. He’s their main ball handler. He’s the decision-maker, the playmaker. He’s the guy who hasn’t struggled at all this year. At times we’ve seen D-Wade struggle a bit, but LeBron seems to always be on. He’s a guy who can do it all and the way he’s been playing this postseason has been amazing.
He wants to get in the paint, so you have to cut him off, but that’s not easy. When you stop him from getting in the paint that really helps you, but it’s tough because now he gets the ball in a situation where it’s easier to get into the paint and his jump shot has gotten so much better.
The Celtics have done a good job against LeBron over the years, and coach Doc Rivers had good schemes to stop him, but he’s had good games against them too. They just have to be physical with him, give him different looks. I think at times they will have Rajon Rondo matching up with him to have a quick guy who can impact the game and steal the ball from him. Over the years it has worked for them, so it will be a good matchup.
- Who must the Heat stop to beat the Celtics?
I’m sticking with Kevin Garnett. He’s had a resurgence this year and especially in these playoffs, kind of the same way Tim Duncan has. KG has been tremendous, and he’s the one guy you have to stop if you want to win a game against the Celtics.
Handling KG is no simple task and Miami’s bigs must step up to the challenge again this series (Getty Images).
How Miami handles KG if Bosh isn’t back is going to be key in this series. In the previous series, LeBron was able to go down and take on David West, but he’s going to have to be on Paul Pierce this series, so it’s going to be on guys like Joel Anthony and Haslem to take on Garnett. Those guys are pretty good defenders, and I think they’ll be able to handle the task if they alternate down there. Miami goes small a lot now with Bosh out, having LeBron at the four and that also can impact the game. You can have your five go against KG and live with LeBron at the four.
- Who is the defensive player on the Heat who’s been most instrumental in their victories?
I have to say that’s LeBron too. He’s just been playing at such a high level, starting with the Knicks series. Whenever he was on Carmelo, he did a great job on him. In the Pacers series when they lost Bosh, he had to go guard West and did an amazing job on him as well. He’s been tremendous for them defensively.
He keeps coming. He’s a very versatile defender and any time you have a versatile defender, it’s always an advantage because you can have him guard different positions and he can switch on different guys without hurting your team.
When you’re as good as LeBron is offensively, you usually tend to be a pretty good defensive player when you want to, especially if you have that physical ability. You know what to expect, you understand the game offensively and you know what guys want to do. I think knowing all that makes it easier defensively.
- Who is the defensive player on the Celtics who’s been most instrumental in their victories?
I think it’s Paul Pierce. Paul did a great job on Andre Iguodala in the series against Philly. They say he’s getting older and he’s not supposed to be as good, but he’s still competing at a high level. I think he’s always been an underrated and good defender, but he got much better when Doc Rivers took over the team.
If anyone can stop this Miami team’s run it’s Doc Rivers. He pushes all the right buttons (Getty Images).
I’m sure Doc went to him and told him he would have to guard for them to be good. They’re a smart defensive team. They guard well and they have a lot of different coverages, which shows Doc’s influence. But Pierce has taken on the challenge and become a better defender. It helps when you have a guy like KG come on your team. That defensive energy that Kevin brings is contagious. His defensive mindset has rubbed off on the team and especially on Paul.
- Who wins and why?
Boston in 7. Overall, I think Boston matches up well with Miami. We saw it during the regular season and they’ve been playing well in the postseason.
Being without Bosh is going to make a difference. I don’t think LeBron and Wade can each have four 35-point games against Boston. Doc won’t let that happen — the Celtics’ schemes are too good. They’re going to take one of those guys out of the game, and for Miami to win, they’ll need each of those guys to score in the high 30s. I don’t see that happening